James Cecil Dickens (December 19, 1920 – January 2, 2015), better known as Little Jimmy Dickens, was an American country music singer famous for his humorous novelty songs, his small size, 4’11” (150 cm), and his rhinestone-studded outfits. He started as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1948 and became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983. – Wikipedia
But he was more than that to us. He was one of the last surviving musicians from an era we all hold dear to our hearts. He was the oldest Opry member. He was a legend. He was cherished and revered and it was an honor having him perform our event. One of my most favorite memories was Little Jimmy Dickens hanging out in my camper at the 2012 Muddy Roots Music Festival as he put together his set list for the evening. Lord I wish I had kept it.
Little Jimmy was as down to earth as you can get. He may have been 5 feet tall in height but he was a giant in spirit to us. He never once acted like a rockstar around us even though he had earned and deserved the treatment a hundred times over. He treated us as equals in true Muddy Roots spirit. He hung out with Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose in lawn chairs beside the camper all day and awaited his time on stage just like every other musician. They told jokes and stories all day. It was pure gold.
There is another side of Jimmy slightly less told with words but by his actions and by the logo on his hat. Little Jimmy Dickens was also a distinguished Scottish Rite Freemason and Shriner. I can tell you from personal experience that this means he spent a life of servitude to his community. The Shriners dedicate their lives to helping children in need. They raise money for the 22 Shriner hospitals across the U.S. that take care of children regardless of ability to pay. Brother Dickens lived a life of goodwill and is testament to what happens when a good man becomes great. He will always stand tall in my book.
May the birds of paradise fly you to heaven brother.
Here are some photos of Little Jimmy Dickens performing the Muddy Roots Music Festival in 2012.
Photo I took from my camper. I knew I needed to document this special moment.
Photo by Uvudu? Imaging
Photo by Moloich Photography
Photo by Moloich Photograpy
Booze. Booze. Booze. As the famed man Homer Simpson said, it’s the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Including poverty. At least, for some. The United States has a long history of moonshiners. Ever since the Whiskey Tax of 1791, the U.S. government has told its citizens they can’t distill their own spirits without excise and ever since 1791 U.S. citizens have waved jugs of white lightning and dissatisfied middle fingers in the air.
The Rambler ain’t saying one side is right and the other wrong. We’re saying, why the heck is it always fellas, eh? Every which way you look in history, there’s a dude running a rebellion, a man behind a still…and we call BS. Just because the world hasn’t heard about them doesn’t mean that women in niche histories don’t exist. The Rambler went on a mission to find some moonshining ladies folks should know about.
Here’s two women who – for better or worse – got on the Feds shitlist by selling homebrew. Now if only songs were written about each…
Nancy, the New Jersey Moonshiner
Hooch! Theft! Cross-dressing! Escape! Now, if that ain’t the makings of a good song, we don’t know what is.
1896 was a big year for apple jack in New Jersey and Nancy was one of its leading distillers. “Crazy” Nancy (called such by her surrounding county) lived in the hills near the Lake Pequest River. No one knew how she survived. She had no family. Her only known income was berry-selling in summer and the occasional fur in the fall. Each winter, she’d disappear for six weeks, but, who can be too worried about a hard-bargaining loon of a woman when someone was thieving large quantities from the apple orchards? Still, a government man by the name of Finch, posing as a farmhand, spied on Nancy for two months.
Finch staked out Nancy’s two acres and barn abode. One freezing night he saw a man with an apple sack enter Nancy’s home…but no male ever left. Nancy left later that day…and Finch took a chance. He broke-in and searched her joint. What Finch found was a hidden compartment that was dug into the hill. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (February 2, 1896), “In it was a still, a half a hundred large jugs and a pile of apples. It was a complete moonshiner’s outfit. On the floor lay Nancy’s female apparel.”
What does a lawman do when he realizes a woman has been the scourge of the apple orchards? He hides under her kitchen table in the dark and waits for her to get home. Then, like an idiot, he yells, “Hold up your hands!” after she’s come home and lights a candle…which gives Nancy time to blowout said illumination and crack the SOB over the head with a chair.
Needless to say, Nancy ran away and was never found. What was retrieved were over 500 gallons of apple jack from hidey-holes in her home and a nearby cavern.
Mahala Mullins was a widow with near 20 kids. She weighed somewhere between 400 – 700 pounds (1890s newspaper accounts vary). She lived near Sneedville, Tennessee with a cabin at the top of Newman’s Ridge. It’s a cabin you can still visit as it was given to the Vardy Historical Society and restored. Anyways, all those young’uns, the ones that survived infancy and didn’t get shot or lynched later, helped run the family business – moonshine.
The Mullins’ specialty: apple and peach brandy.
Let’s get back to that weight issue. It’s not so much that The Rambler gives a good goddamn how large Mahala was, more so that the police and revenuers did. Some accounts state Mrs. Mullins had elephantiasis. Others state that that she was so large, when she died they had to remove the chimney to allow her body’s egress. However big she was, the phrase that followed Mahala Mullins was “catchable, but not fetchable.” Authorities knew that Mrs. Mullins was a moonshiner…but they had no way of arresting her and jailing her.
See, she lived up a winding ridge and there was no solid road. She sold moonshine to those that braved their way up to her, and made a good living at it, too. When revenuers would appear, it is said that Mrs. Mullins would taunt them, saying, “Take me if you can.” Authorities never quite figured out how to make that happen. The Atlanta Constitution in 1897 reported, “It would take half a dozen strong men to carry her out of the house and when the outside was reached they would not be able to get her to the road at the bottom of the ridge, as it is impossible to get a wagon to the top, where her cabin is located.” Lawdogs would bust her still and leave it at that. Of course, Mahala would immediately build a new one.
Come on. This screams for a song…and get this, Mahala Mullins mighta been murdered. It’s a rumor, but a long-standing one, that Mrs. Mahala Mullins died in convulsions similar to those that would occur if a person had been poisoned. But who (outside of police) would want Mahala dead? Maybe rival moonshiners envious of her unarrestable status…
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Come on now, The Rambler knows yer out there. Yes, you. The lurking songwriters. The slinking storytellers. The prowling poets. Get on it. These are two outlaws that’d make hella swell subjects. The world has heard of Popcorn Sutton…give it a few more rotgut rebels to wonder over.
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Patty Templeton likes hearing about moonshiners and women rebels. If you’ve got names of either, you should hit her up over here.
Roy “King of Country Music” Acuff said, “I was an unknown and DeFord [Bailey] traveled with me for a long time. He helped me get where I am.”
But who the heck was DeFord Bailey?
Only one of the most popular Grand Ole Opry performers EVER. DeFord Bailey was at the Opry before it was called the Opry – back when it was the WSM Barn Dance. Judge Hay, the Opry’s announcer, came up with the name Grand Ole Opry as he introduced DeFord Bailey. Bailey then played his most famous song “The Pan American Blues”, a tune which near-perfectly mimicked a L&N express/passenger train.
Bailey played the Grand Ole Opry twice as much as any other musician from 1927 – 1941. For 14 years he drew crowds so large that the Opry often had him tour with up-and-comers (like Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff) to help build their audiences. Yet, one of the best roots and blues harmonica players of all time has been lost from public knowledge. Maybe because there is “…an obvious paradox: that country music includes a long-standing tradition of black participation and contribution but remains nonetheless ‘white’ music.” (Hidden in the Mix) Meaning, DeFord Bailey was an African American and the history of country music, to a certain extent, has been white-washed, both in the perception of those who listen to it and those who create(d) it.
DeFord Bailey was a slight man. About 5 feet tall. There was a subtle curve to his back. He had a limp. These were all side effects of fighting off polio when he was 3. Bailey was bedridden for a year and in that year, he played harmonica. Music was old-hat to him. He’d received his first harmonica when he was 1. No big surprise, when you come from a family where everyone sang or danced and your granddad was a prized fiddler. That, and how hard could a harmonica be to play as compared to the homemade instruments that were lying around?
“You ever made music with a hair comb? You can put paper over it and blow against it. You holler through it. You can get any tune you want out of it, high or low. I didn’t last long, ‘cause it tickled my lip. I bet you never heard of making fiddles out of corn talks. Well, we did that too.” (DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music)
Add in cane fifes and washtub basses, too. The Bailey family made them all. But what stuck with DeFord was the harmonica, and maybe because of his year lying in bed listening to the world, DeFord got good at mimicking noises with his instrument. He said of his famed train songs:
“I worked on my train for years, getting that train down right…I got the engine part. Then I had to make the whistle. It was about, I expect, seventeen years to get that whistle. It takes time to get this stuff that I’m talking about, original. You don’t get no original stuff in a day or two. It takes years to get it down piece by piece.” (DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music)
You got a man who had natural talent and a drive to develop a style, but no opportunities to display that skill…until he was a youngin’ working as a houseboy for a wealthy Tennessee family. Once the family accidentally heard Bailey play his harmonica, they had him dressed to the nines in a white coat, black leather tie, and a bright shoeshine. He didn’t have to do anymore chores. He played music in the parlor all day.
Bailey stayed in and around Nashville thereafter. As he got older, he collected odd jobs. He worked in a theater. He was an elevator operator. He occasionally played music for dinner parties. Finally, DeFord Bailey’s big break came through…bicycle riding.
Seriously, smalls. It did. Here’s how.
Bailey loved his bike. He rode it from boyhood through his early 40s. He was a proficient trick rider and, occasionally, would incorporate his bicycle into his Opry act. But before the Opry, there was WDAD, a radio station run by a Pop Exum – a fan of DeFord Bailey. Exum also managed an auto accessory shop. Bailey became a regular on WDAD radio because Exum heard DeFord play his harmonica while buying parts for his bicycle at the auto shop.
Not long after, WSM stole DeFord Bailey away for the Grand Ole Opry through the introduction of Dr. Humphrey Bate (of the Possum Hunters), a flagship act of the Opry and a regular on WDAD.
DeFord Bailey was a fast success with audiences of all colors. He made $5 an appearance while on tour and $7 a night during his early years at the Opry. Not a shabby wage in an age where you could buy a loaf a bread for 10 cents. But still, in 1929, two years into working with the Opry, Bailey was in so much demand by other radio stations and on tour, he was able to haggle the Opry into giving him a raise of $20/night. That’d be about $270/ night in 2014 money.
From 1927 – 1928, DeFord Bailey recorded his entire commercial catalog in 3 sessions. His first session was at Columbia Records in Atlanta. Two songs (“Pan American Blues” and Hesitation Blues”) were recorded. His second session was in New York where eight songs went on record. His third and final session – well, get this – was at Victor Records in Nashville, TN. Eight sides were recorded, though not all were released. According to the PBS documentary DeFord Bailey: A Legend Lost and Paul Hemphill’s The Nashville Sound, DeFord Bailey was the first person to record in Nashville, TN. Not the first African American. Not the first harmonica player. He was the first musician EVER to be recorded in Music City, USA.
The Rambler wants to note, that this column is called “Odd Americana”. The only odd facet of Bailey’s history is how the world chose to forget the first man ever recorded in Nashville.
DeFord Bailey was insanely popular for well over a decade. He toured everywhere. He was trusted and loved by his fellow musicians. So what happened? Why did he stop the Opry in 1941? What did he do after that? When did he die? Whoa there, cowboy. We’ll get to it all.
In 1941, the Opry fired DeFord Bailey.
Yeah. Good move, Opry. Good move.
It was all about money, and not even Bailey’s salary. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) held the licenses on most of the traditional songs that DeFord Bailey reworked to make his own. ASCAP wanted more money or “their songs” couldn’t be played on the radio. WSM, the home of the Opry, didn’t want to pay up. DeFord was told he couldn’t play his songs. DeFord Bailey didn’t have new songs to play. He was then fired from the Opry.
Here’s what Judge Hay said about DeFord Bailey’s leaving in A Story of the Grand Ole Opry:
“That brings us to DeFord Bailey, a little crippled colored boy who was a bright feature on our show for almost 15 years. Like some members of his race and other races, DeFord was lazy. He knew a dozen numbers, which he played on the air and recorded for a major company. But he refused to learn any more, even though his reward was great. He was our mascot and is still loved by the entire company. We gave him a whole year’s notice to learn some more tunes, but he would not. When we were forced to give him his final notice, DeFord said without malice, ‘I knowed it was comin’ Judge. I knowed it was comin’.’”
What the hell kinda crap is that? ASCAP held copyright on traditional songs that Bailey played his entire life. WSM wanted him to suddenly create an entirely new collection of songs in his famed style. They asked a man to create a catalog of all-new, brilliant material in the matter of a year, when one song feasibly took DeFord Bailey 17 YEARS to master. Sonsabitches. Let alone, how’s about that tone? The Rambler kinda wants to piss on Hay’s book (or at least that page) for using such a patronizing, racist tone – especially when Bailey spoke of Hay as a friend in his own interview-driven biography, DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music.
DeFord Bailey was done with music. From the 1940s until his death in 1982, he did only a handful of guest appearances. Once again, he was back to odd jobs. Odd – but stable. Bailey owned a shoeshine shop that served popcorn, soft drinks, and ice cream. He rented out rooms in his house. He made dinners and sold them at a coal yard. He bought coal while he was there and resold it elsewhere.
DeFord Bailey didn’t allow his disappearance from music to destroy him. He had a wife. He had three kids. He had business sense. Towards the end of his life, after he was befriended by David Morton, author of his biography, Bailey finally saw his worth and legacy to music. He said, “I’m an old man now. But they never will get out of a harp what I can. They’re just wasting their time trying to beat me on a harp. Ain’t nobody ever beat me down with no harp. Trying to beat me blowing is like trying to outrun a Greyhound bus! I got notes harder than Mohammed Ali can throw.”
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To find out more about DeFord Bailey check out:
DeFord Bailey: A Black Star in Early Country Music – David C. Morton
And for more information on diversuty within country music flip the pages of:
Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music – edited by Diane Pecknold
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Patty Templeton’s favorite song by DeFord Bailey is “John Henry”…or maybe it is “Pan American Blues”. What’s your favorite Bailey song? Spout it out at her over here.